Mofongo and Chilis, and a little José Andrés

Beach vacations are all about hanging out in a hammock with a good book in one hand and a tropical rum drink in the other. But in Puerto Rico, I was torn…I had all these grand plans to explore the island (you know the rain forest and the colonial villages), but then I laid eyes on this little spot outside the Ritz-Carlton Reserve’s reception area…the Positivo Sand Bar.

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It is just steps away from the main pool and beach, because heaven forbid if you were to work off some calories while on vacay.  Plus there were all these cool seating areas (as well as a couple of hammocks), which made choosing a place to kick off the shoes very difficult.

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Lunch and dinner are casual affairs, but it is important to note that sushi is only offered at dinner.  Not to worry as the Caribbean Cobb and a bottle of rosé should occupy your cravings until then.  I would personally go back for the fish tacos alone.  I know, fish tacos are so overdone, right?  But, these were truly delectable while being rather simple: the local catch, blackened, and served with pico (de gallo) and smashed avocados.

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The Caribbean Cobb, with spiny lobster, avocado, tomato, cucumber, egg, corn, queso fresco, plantain chips and a side of mango dressing.

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The blackened fish tacos.

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At dinner, the Dragon Roll, spicy shrimp tempura, sweet plantain, cucumber and tuna with tobiko (flying fish roe).

It was ridiculously easy whiling away our days in this manner.  And living in Arizona, it is not like we crave the sunlight…a little bit of rain is actually a refreshing and welcome sight.

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But the pièce de resistance at the Ritz-Carlton Reserve is the restaurant Mi Casa by José Andrés, featuring spins on traditional Spanish and Puerto Rican fare. Most of the menu highlights Andrés’ flirtation with island cuisine, or cocina criolla. A prime example: coquitos frescos ‘Ferran Adria,’ a coconut and rum concoction similar to his mentor Ferran Adria’s famous olive spheres at the incomparable (and sadly now-closed) El Bulli. Served in a half coconut, the delicate orbs burst in the mouth without even so much as one chew.  There is also the bocadillo de lechón de Guavate con mojo de chayote y chicharrón volao. To translate, that is a steamed bun + Guavate-style pork belly (an area in PR known for making delicioso pork) + squash sauce + pork rinds. Simply put, they were small rounds of fried bread filled with tender pork belly and crunchy pork rinds. The setting was equally spectacular, and since we were in a large group, we were able to try many of the dishes on the menu.

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Private dining room at Mi Casa

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Coquitos frescos ‘Ferran Adrià’: Coconut + mint + lime

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Melt-in-your-mouth octopus appetizer.

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Piquillo peppers stuffed with lump crab meat.

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Guavate-style pork belly buns.

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‘Rossejat negra’ con gambas: Squid ink pasta with head-on shrimp, cuttlefish and aioli…the shrimp was more like a giant prawn, a meal in and of itself.

Before I knew it, a week had flown by and I still had not left the resort grounds.  I had to get out of my comfort zone, if only for a few hours.  Under the guidance of Richard Morales, our fantastic driver, we toured Old San Juan and environs, ending up on this quant little street for lunch at Café Puerto Rico.  The name sounded a bit touristy, but I had faith.  Ordering the house specialty, mofongo with local snapper, I found my happy place.  Mofongo is an African-Puerto Rican dish of plantains that have picked green and mashed in a wooden mortar and pestle into a ball, or in this instance, the shape of a cup. Sounds bland, but then broth, olive oil, garlic and pork cracklings (bless the lard!) are added to the mixture, resulting in a very flavorful, edible bowl in which to spoon your choice of beef, pork, or, in this case, local snapper.  Muy rico!

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But my favorite discovery of the trip?  A new hot sauce.  This seems so simple that I plan on making something similar with the batch of ghost chilis growing in my back yard. Reminiscent of escabeche, the chilis are essentially marinated with vinegar, garlic, pepper and herbs.

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Another sauce that piques my interest is guava barbecue sauce.  How yummy is that???  This just may be my summer go-to on ribs. Buen provecho. xoM

Guava Barbecue Sauce

1 cup water

1 cup guava paste (found in Latin American markets or on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Goya-Guava-Paste-21-oz/dp/B0002HAAD8)

1/3 apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup dark rum

1/4 cup tomato paste

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 T onion, minced

1 T fresh ginger, minced

1 T soy sauce

2 t ketchup

2 t Worcestershire sauce

2 cloves garlic, minced

scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, minced

salt and pepper, to taste

Place the water, guava paste, vinegar, rum, tomato paste, lemon juice, onion, ginger, soy sauce, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and scotch bonnet pepper into a saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, whisking until evenly blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until the sauce has slightly thickened and is richly flavored, 10 to 15 minutes. The sauce should be pourable. If it has become too thick, thin it with some water. Serve hot or cold.

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